Reclaiming Exmoor Project

Palaeoecological sampling being undertaken close to Larkbarrow Farm
Palaeoecological sampling being undertaken close to Larkbarrow Farm, © R. Fyfe

Combining history and palaeoecology to investigate the Knights’ legacy on Exmoor

The ‘Royal Forest of Exmoor’ (c. 60 km2) was sold to John Knight in 1818, beginning a period of agricultural, environmental and social change known as the ‘Reclamation of Exmoor’. John Knight wanted to transform what he perceived to be a barren wasteland into an agriculturally-productive and profitable landscape. His focus for the estate was to develop croplands on the high moor, and he sought to achieve this by applying techniques that we might now see as environmentally questionable. Most notably, extensive moorland drainage. From the 1840s, the estate’s management was passed to John Knight’s son, Frederic Knight, who instead shifted focus towards tenanted livestock farming.

Following the discovery of a collection of correspondence, accounts and other documents relating to the Knights and their estate, an opportunity arose to learn more about this important period for Exmoor. Previously, our knowledge largely relied on earlier historians (who predominantly focussed on Frederic Knight’s tenure, and the archaeological remains of enclosure and drainage. The Reclaiming Exmoor Project set out to build on this knowledge by combining research using the rediscovered Knight Archive with a programme of detailed palaeoecological research. This combined approach meant that an in-depth understanding of Exmoor during this period could be developed, encompassing society, economy and ecology, and the links between these different aspects of the landscape.

During the early nineteenth century, the idea of ‘reclamation’ spread throughout Britain: the ‘improvement’ of ‘unproductive wastes’ using new technologies and experimental techniques by the rural elite. The ‘Reclamation of Exmoor’ was previously one of the least documented and least well-known of these schemes, but it is now arguably one of the best documented. The letters, accounts and receipts contained in the Knight Archive provide a unique insight into how nineteenth-century moorland ‘improvement’ was envisioned, propagandised, and implemented. They show that John Knight’s vision for Exmoor was intricate, but idealistic, highly optimistic and ultimately unsuccessful (on his own terms), largely due to the immense financial costs involved. Similarly, the correspondence of Frederick Knight and his stewards reveal how they perceived the difficult task of making the moorland ‘productive’. A narrative of ‘heroic colonisation’, and of Exmoor and its people being ‘savage’ or ‘hostile’, appears to have led to recruiting tenants from outside the region. These were often people who had fallen on hard times and, for some individuals, the hardship of implementing ‘reclamation’ on Exmoor proved to be disastrous. Eventually, local farming families began to take over the farms, moving them away from ideas of ‘reclamation’ and towards more financially sustainable positions using Exmoor's land to support farming beyond the Knight estate.

The impacts that ‘reclamation’ activities had on local ecology, and how this relates to modern ‘restoration’ activities, can be understood through palaeoecology. This is the study of past environmental change, using the preserved remains of plants, animals, fungi and other life forms to tell us about changing conditions through time. The Reclaiming Exmoor Project used preserved microscopic pollen, fungal spores and charcoal to learn about how Exmoor’s moorland vegetation has changed with human activities associated with ‘reclamation’ (e.g. drainage, burning, livestock farming). statistical analyses using these data were able to use information from the archival research, showing that drainage during the nineteenth century likely contributed to declines in Sphagnum (peat-forming) moss and overall moorland plant diversity. However, this research also demonstrated that ecological change has been a constant on Exmoor over the last six hundred years (and probably longer), rather than an exception during the nineteenth century. For example, analyses showed that burning has likely contributed to grass and sedge abundance and livestock grazing may also have impacted on local plant diversity. These are both activities with thousands of years of history on Exmoor . This tells us that modern interventions aimed at encouraging Sphagnum, enhancing biodiversity and reducing grass dominance are broadly consistent with the long-term ecological dynamics of Exmoor. These may include ‘re-wetting’ or careful changes to burning and/or grazing regimes, but they should always be carefully considered with regards to efficacy, local interests and cultural heritage.

History and palaeoecology reveal different aspects of Exmoor’s past, but both show it to be a dynamic landscape. Society, economy, culture and ecology have changed through time as people have sought different ways to live, work, subsist or seek fortune on Exmoor. This not only tells us about the past, but helps to understand potential future directions for Exmoor’s nature and people.

The Reclaiming Exmoor Project was funded by The Leverhulme Trust, and work was carried out at University of Plymouth and University of Exeter by Professor Ralph Fyfe, Professor Henry French, Dr Francis Rowney and Dr Leonard Baker.

Follow the link to visit the Reclaiming Exmoor Project website.

Further Reading

SEM341388 - Fyfe, R.M., Ombashi, H., Davies, H.J., and Head, K. (2018). Quantified moorland vegetation and assessment of the role of burning over the past five millennia. Journal of Vegetation Science, 29(3), 393-403.

SEM7231 - Orwin, C.S. (1929). The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest (First Ed). London: Oxford University Press.

SSO1774 - Orwin, C.S., and Sellick, R.J. (1970). The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest (Second Ed). Newton Abbot: David and Charles.

SEM8808 - Riley, H. (2019). The Landscape of the Knights on Exmoor: A Case Stury for the Exmoor Mires Partnership.

SEM7440 - Riley, H. and Wilson-North, R. (2001). The Field Archaeology of Exmoor. Swindon: English Heritage.

SEM341389 - Rowney, F.M., Fyfe, R.M., Anderson, P., Barnett, R., Blake, W., Daley, T., Head, K., MacLeod, A., Matthews, I., and Smith, D. (2022). Ecological consequences of historic moorland 'improvement.' Biodiversity and Conservation, 31, 3137-3161.

SEM341408 - Rowney, F.M., Fyfe, R.M., Baker, L., French, H., Koot, M.B., Ombashi, H., Timms, R.G.O. (2023) Historical anthropogenic disturbances explain long-term moorland vegetation dynamics.  Ecology and Evolution, 13 (3), e9876

SEM341390 - Wilson-North, R. (2017). The rediscovery of the Knight Family archive and its importance to Exmoor. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History, 161, 189-194.

Further project publications are forthcoming. They are likely to be available in 2023.

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